Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, marks end of slavery in the US. Here's all you need to know

By | Written by Joydeep Bose
Jun 18, 2021 05:55 AM IST

Juneteenth on June 19: US president Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris declared the day as a federal holiday, commemorating the anniversary of the declaration of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, the most remote of the slave states, back in 1865.

Juneteenth, a new federal holiday on June 19 that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans in the United States, was authorised by US president Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris on Thursday. "Juneteenth marks both a long hard night of slavery subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come," Biden said after signing the federal holiday bill into law, "The day is a reminder of the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."

US President Joe Biden speaks prior to signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law as Vice President Kamala Harris stands by in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2021. (REUTERS / Carlos Barria)
US President Joe Biden speaks prior to signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law as Vice President Kamala Harris stands by in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2021. (REUTERS / Carlos Barria)

Also Read: US Congress declares holiday for Juneteenth, marking end of slavery

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Juneteenth will be the eleventh federally recognised holiday in the US, coming nearly four decades after the last one which honoured American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, reported news agency Reuters. The bill to recognise June 19 as the Juneteenth federal holiday was backed by both the Democrats as well as several of the Republicans in the US Congress, the agency added. It received overwhelming support at the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, after clearing the Senate unanimously.

Juneteenth on June 19: History and significance

Slavery in the United States carries a long and painful history. European colonists first forcibly brought enslaved Africans by ship to the British colonies that became the United States in the 1600s; millions of people were legally owned there until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865.

June 19 was chosen for the Juneteenth federal holiday since it marks, in many ways, the freedom for enslaved Black Americans in one of the most remote slave states in the US following the American Civil War. On this day in 1865, Union Army general Gordon Granger informed a group of enslaved people in Texas that they had been freed two and a half years prior by the order of the then US President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 during the Civil War had officially outlawed slavery in all the states which had rebelled against the Union, including Texas. However, the enforcement of the proclamation was slow and more often than not depended on the advancement of Union troops. News reached particularly late in the slave states, where the presence of Union troops was low, and Texas was one of the most of these states which had seen an expansion of slavery in the years prior. Thus, June 19, 1865, is seen as the day when the light of emancipation reached even the darkest of depths in the United States.

Juneteenth: Reception in the US

"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments... they embrace them," US president Joe Biden told a room filled with about 80 members of Congress, moments after signing the bill into law that recognised Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Other community leaders and activists, including 94-year-old Opal Lee, who campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, were also present in the room.

Also Read: US President Joe Biden to honour the forgotten victims of Tulsa race massacre

US vice-president Kamala Harris acknowledged that the White House, the seat of power of the US government, is a "house built by enslaved people". She said that the holiday would be an occasion to "reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action."

In the Republican camp, there were several who backed the Juneteenth bill in Congress, while others opposed it and said that declaring a separate holiday for Juneteenth would "needly confuse or divide Americans".

However, while celebrities and politicians commemorate the declaration of Juneteenth as a federally recognised holiday, there are some who express apprehension regarding the same. "It's important to commemorate emancipation and to encourage everyday Americans to reckon with the history of slavery... but there is always a danger with these sort of things so they can be performative," Reuters quoted Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College who specializes in African-American history and civil rights. He said that Juneteenth might just, unfortunately, turn out to be a "failure" if its purpose remains limited only as a date in the calendar, without translating to any meaningful legal action on police brutality on Black Americans, voting rights, and the racial wealth gap in the US.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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